BOOK REIVEW / Camel-trains and mandarins: 'A History of Civilizations' - Fernand Braudel: Allen Lane, 25 pounds QBY: JAN MORRIS

WHEN I think of the name Braudel I think of flying: swooping hawk-like in azure skies over the Mediterranean of the 16th century, spotting here a Venetian galley, there a Catalan privateer, a camel-train plodding towards Tunis, a gaggle of merchants disputing prices in Augsburg. It is sad to find the Saint-Exupery of historiography, in the opening chapter of A History of Civilizations, brought miserably down to earth in the controversies of Academe.

More miserably still, French Academe, so obsessed with schools and -isms. It is surely an academic arrogance anyway to suppose that Braudel and his colleagues pioneered the study of history as a mu1ti-discipline - a mix of economics, geography and social science as well as politics and war. Diplomats and journalists have always interpreted nations in this holistic way, not to mention travel writers since the days of Ibn Battuta. That the French intellectual elite should find such a blend controversial only confirms what fools these Immortals be.

Fools enough to prevent this book being adopted, as Braudel intended, as the final text-book of history courses in French secondary schools - a sixth-form summing-up of the entire past. It seems to me a magnificent idea, to present to young minds on the threshold of life a grand sweep over the whole course of human progress: and fortunately when Braudel emerges from his opening in-fights and obfuscations he takes to the air again - not to the thrilling hedge-hopping of the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II, but to a Jumbo altitude, from where the mighty goings-on of our race can be seen swirling around the globe like fronts and depressions on a weather map.

It would take God himself, of course, to do full justice to such a vision. Dear Professor Braudel (who died, actually, in 1985) is entirely human. As a prophet he is by no means omniscient - for example even in 1963, when this book was originally published, he never foresaw that the flood of Hispanics into the United States would transform that country by the end of the century. As a judge he seems to me erratic: a history of civilizations which includes no reference to Adolf Hitler, and only seven references to Jews, all of them in the chapter about Islam, is hardly Solomonic. As a historian of everything he is agreeably fallible: how endearing to be reminded that the scientist John Black, though of Scottish parentage and a professor at Edinburgh, was actually born in Bordeaux; and that while the violin was made popular by Italian virtuosi, 'the present-day bow . . . was invented by a Frenchman.'

I could quibble about the book for pages. It is full of footling generalisations. America 'has become conscious of its history, and is approaching the moment of truth'; no action can last 'unless it goes in history's direction and at history's pace'; 'civilization is the longest story of all'. It has its inaccuracies: Java can hardly be said to be part of 'the Indian archipelago'; Macao is in no sense 'opposite Canton'; the Sikhs don't come from the Himalayas. Its up-dating, described in the blurb as 'gentle', is a lot too gentle: on page 95 there is still no such country as Bangladesh, on page 522 the population of Australia is stuck at 15 million. And it is really no use telling us, out of the blue, to 'compare how the town of Troyes treated its indigent population in 1573' - we have no idea how Troyes treated its indigents in 1573]

But there, the little dog barks and the caravan moves on. Fernand Braudel's aerial cavalcade easily survives these impertinent snaps from the ground, and stays in my mind, as I put away my pettifogging notebooks, as a work of art - far nobler than mere scholarship. Its insights are variously luminous, startling and curious. Braudel suggests, for instance, that if we could record in an electronic memory the sum total of our knowledge of European history, from the 5th century to the present, the operative word of the whole assembly would be 'liberty'. He says that in the early 15th century the Chinese all but rounded the Cape of Good Hope, half a century before the Portuguese went the other way. He tells us that in 1914 the Socialists of Europe 'were close to seizing power and building a Europe as modern as it is today - and perhaps more so'. He bravely suggests that homage is due to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

He likens money-lenders to 'painful splinters' in society. He believes that until the Mongol assaults of the 13th century India, and Europe were more or less on a par. He brilliantly illustrates the continuity between the mandarins of the old China and the party bureaucrats of the new, and springs a characteristic surprise with the observation that, apart from the Vikings, the Europeans quickest to develop sea-power were the Dutch, the Italians and the Irish.

Braudel's portrait of the planet is immensely varied and vivacious. He hates the drabness of statistics, and is looking always, even through his murkiest vapours of synthesis, for those galleys, camels and disputatious merchants. He thinks of civilization always in the plural, and infinitely divisible - there are Scottish and Kazakh civilizations in his view, even civilizations of individual cities. One rises, another falls, this one overlaps the next.

Lots of the book is out of date, some of it is meandering, and to my mind it is no more convincing as a rationale of human existence than Macbeth's maxim (itself rather Braudelian, come to think of it) about sound and fury. But it is a tremendous thing nevertheless, a panorama full of emotion, excitement, humanity and even hope. And did you know that the French introduced their social security system in 1945-46, before the British? In this immense neo- celestial survey of the whole gamut of earthly achievement, Professor Braudel finds room to tell us that, bless his Gallic heart.

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links